How to Be Happier: Start With Your Brain, Not Your Heart

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“Your brain is the hardware of your soul,” writes Dr. Daniel Amen in the introduction of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

Hmmm…really? Interesting.

I’ve always been an emotional creature – sensitive, intuitive, nervous, tricky. (Cue obnoxious roar of laughter from family, friends and ex-boyfriends in the peanut gallery). If you asked me what the hardware of my soul is, the answer would be easy: my heart. My brain? Not so much.

Being the emotional creature that I am, I sometimes feel prone to the slippery slopes of depression, anxiety and impulsive behavior that we all try to steer clear of. So when I read the subtitle of Dr. Amen’s book – The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness,  Anger, and Impulsiveness – I was eager to learn more.

Dr. Amen is a neuropsychiatrist who specializes in a type of brain imaging called SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), which measures blood flow and metabolic activity patterns (a fancy way of studying how the brain operates). Every psychological problem is characterized by a particular pattern, which can be revealed on a SPECT scan.

Throughout the book, Dr. Amen shows clear images of the brain pointing out where activity is inactive or overactive and then gives detailed approaches (like natural methods, changing thought processes or providing medical solutions) to solve problems. People suffering from depression, for example, demonstrate heightened activity in the brain’s limbic system. Dr. Amen provides examples and testimonials from patients who suffered for years with psychological problems only to discover that there were solutions once they were diagnosed.

The bottom line? When your brain works right, you work right. And when your brain has trouble, you are more likely to have trouble in your life. The emotional highs and lows I experience have nothing to do with my heart at all! It’s not how you’re feeling, it’s how your brain is operating. Our thought patterns and emotional responses are wired into our brains, but Dr. Amen offers hope that you can change that wiring. He also provides several exercises that help rewire the neural pathways and help you think more positively, become more self-aware, focus better and ease emotional triggers.

One of the things that makes this book so helpful are Amen’s “prescriptions,” based on his extensive practice, for a variety of disorders, such as:

  • To quell anxiety and panic: Try breathing exercises.
  • To fight depression: Learn how to kill ANTS/ Automatic Negative Thoughts (My biggest take-away from Dr. Amen, “Don’t believe every stupid thought you have! Slow down, breathe in deep, and ask yourself calmly, “Is this really true?”)
  • To curb anger: Follow the Amen anti-anger diet and learn the nutrients that calm rage.
  • To stop obsessive worrying: Follow Amen’s “get unstuck” writing exercise and learn other problem-solving exercises.

I skipped around the book a little to read about cases that were of particular interest to me (i.e. relationship issues, how to focus at work, etc.) But there are chapters that address drugs, violence, and mental illnesses such as ADD and Alzheimer’s.  I found these chapters fascinating.

Dr. Amen is a gifted writer who was able to make this a fast read. I was inspired thinking about how many people could better understand the roots of their problems and improve their quality of life by applying his techniques. If you have ever struggled with anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or know someone who has, this book is worth a read. It’s also empowering for those out there just looking to find new ways of coping with stress and anxiety. For me it was extremely helpful.

Dr. Amen is also a talented speaker, and when I brought up the book with friends during brunch, a few mentioned the programs they had seen of his on PBS. Dr. Amen’s speeches on SPECT scans and brain function have drawn huge crowds and a mass following. Below is a TED speech Dr. Amen gave which I also found fascinating. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLKj1puoWCg

Learn more about Dr. Amen at amenclinics.com.


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